The other day I received an email from a dear friend who has been actively doing his own personal growth work. He was sharing about some insights he has been having about how his ego creates distress and distance in his relationships with others. He then reminded me of something I “learned” a while back and that life keeps giving me the chance to learn again. Namely this: When the ego is running the show things don’t go so well – we feel anxious and desperate and feel the need to control others to gain their approval and the elusive security we believe that their approval will bring. When we can step outside the ego, to our higher self and let go of wanting control of the situation or of the other person we immediately feel released, relaxed, peaceful and can truly relate to the other person from a place of love and acceptance and not desperation and neediness.
This prompted me to think about my relationships and some of the big life lessons they have given me.
- As Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes in “Women Who Run With The Wolves” there is a natural cycle in relationships of life/death/life and in order for a relationship to deepen and grow and become mature love we need to be willing to stay present for each other during the “death” phase and trust that new life will come to the connection in time. In our society we seem to have (myself included) forgotten about the second “life” phase. We get fixated on the initial life phase of relationships (often termed “romantic love” or the honeymoon phase) and we believe that there is something we can to do stay there – to keep our relationship in that perfect, everything is wonderful phase of love. We can’t. There is a natural flow in relationship where once we have enough security and time with someone our “shadow” side begins to surface. Those thoughts, feelings and behaviours that we held aside in an effort to reveal only our best selves start to emerge. Likewise, the deepening of intimacy in the relationship begins to push our security button and we begin to feel very fearful and threatened, both of the loss of the relationship and of the loss of our individuality. This is the “death” phase of the connection. Where the relationship begins to reveal its full self – the good, the bad and the ugly. This is the stage where most people bail. Thoughts of “you’re not who I thought you were” or “I didn’t sign up for this” abound and we begin to blame the other person for where the relationship is not working. “They are changing” we think and we feel duped and angry. Really, we are feeling scared because it’s time to jump off the cliff into mature adult love and a commitment to truly loving the other person come what may. Many of us don’t realize that this “death” phase of the relationship is just the middle phase and not the end. And because we don’t realize that we believe that the relationship has died and cannot be resurrected and so we leave to start again with someone who, we tell ourselves, will be more real or more healthy, or more right for us; someone who won’t kill the romance with their “stuff.” It doesn’t work like that – hence we find ourselves in 6 months or a year or even the next week, back in a new relationship which will ultimately find its way to the death stage of the cycle. The solution to the relationship revolving door is to realize that the death stage precedes the life stage – new life is coming. Hang in there! As we see ourselves holding on and staying present in the relationship through the revelation of each other’s shadow sides and through our own vulnerability we are blessed with a blossoming of intimacy, connection, commitment and love unlike anything we have ever known in romantic/honeymoon love. The romance is there, the love is there, but there is something else that’s there now and that is a deep sense of trust in the presence and continued love of your partner. You’re there for each other and you know it. This is true love. This is deep love. This is the connection we all truly desire but which so few of us ever attain because we turn back too soon. We turn away when things get tough and the shadow appears instead of holding fast and keeping our hearts open to our love.
Certainly there are circumstances where you should consider turning back – if your partner is abusive (verbally, emotionally or physically) or violates your core values (ie. has affairs or lies to you). If your partner isn’t willing to take responsibility for their role in the relationship and do their work to be the best they can be and to grow beyond any harmful behaviour it is best to leave the relationship and establish a relationship with someone who will share the load with you and who is committed to emotional health and wellness first and foremost.
And, I do believe that in any other circumstance, leaving the scene before the relationship has had a chance at rebirth – or the second life phase of the life/death/life cycle is only perpetuating your stay in relationship purgatory. We all want depth and security and commitment and true love and that only comes with the second phase of life. We must pass through the death of the initial connection to find the real jewel within.
The right relationship or the right partner?
A few other things stood out for me as I reviewed my relationship past – recent or otherwise – that I’d like to share with you.
- I am more interested in having my partner in my life than I am interested in being “right”.
- If I’m not careful I can easily lose my balance and put all my eggs in my relationship basket. This means I can find myself losing my connection with friends or not following through on my self-care (exercise, yoga, meditation, journaling, hobbies etc.) which creates a greater dependence/urgency around the relationship than is necessary or healthy.
- I have had a hard time letting people, particularly my significant other see my mistakes/imperfections. This stems from an old story that we all carry that I have to be perfect/good enough in order to be loved. Not only did this need for perfection lead to some inauthenticity (which means it made it hard for me to be truly intimate with others) but it also left my partner feeling like he had to be perfect to keep up. This is so ironic really because I so admired his ability to be real and vulnerable and imperfect and strove to be able to do that myself. It also led my partner to initially put me on a pedestal which I promptly fell from and that stung a lot for both of us.
- I discovered that I had a piece of work to do on expressing genuine love and affection when I’m angry or hurt – I would go into my ego and get into some all or nothing thinking where I couldn’t give my partner a real warm hug for example when I was feeling hurt or angry. It would take me a while to warm up to him after there had been some discord between. I don’t think that has to be the case, nor do I think it’s a very strong demonstration of the depth of my love for this person. I want to be a person who has a heart that is more open than that – I’d like to be a person who doesn’t play games, however unconsciously with my love and trust myself to not withhold my love from my partner when we’re having a problem.
- Further to that point – I realized that I had a hard time identifying the feeling or experience of true, deep, mature love – I seemed only to be able to identify sensations of happiness or approval and sensations of hurt/sadness/anger or disapproval – so if I wasn’t feeling the happy/approval thoughts I would assume that perhaps I’m not loving this person anymore and so I would feel inauthentic hugging him or expressing my love as openly and freely as I would have a moment before the disagreement. As I became aware of this pattern I also became aware that I was doing what Pinkola-Estes spoke of: Namely, I was seeing the death stage of my relationship and judging it as bad or wrong and then withdrawing and protecting myself from the “inevitable” end of the relationship. I didn’t know about the next life phase because it had never been modeled to me and I hadn’t experienced it myself. I really didn’t have a clue what deep, true, committed love was so there was naturally a difficulty in me feeling open and connected and loving through tough times. As I recognized this I knew that I wanted to have a sensation or thought of solid, mature, deep, love that was present for my lover regardless of what poopy event was taking place in him, in me or between us. This meant I had to stay tuned! I had to hang in there as openly as I could for the next phase of rebirth and life. Then the true love would be present. Then I would actually have something deeper than my romantic, on and off again love to carry me through the rough patches. It’s no wonder I didn’t have the ability to feel warm and loving towards my partner during those early times of distress. For me there really wasn’t anything deeper to hold on to. Not because I lacked the ability to love more deeply but because I had never experienced it and hadn’t yet accessed that part of myself.
- I also began to recognize in myself (big ego here) that I would say or do things specifically to try and impress my love. Funnily enough it was often these things that he later brought back to me as things that he felt hurt or disappointed by or felt demonstrated a lack of integrity in my or respect for him etc. I would do things like point out my ex-boyfriends car (fancy black thing) when we drove by his building (only did that once by the way! but I did it not for any other reason than I thought it would impress my sweetheart and make him find me more of a good catch) – yes, I admit it! I behaved like a 10 year old more often than I’d like to admit. I’m half cringing/half laughing as I admit this but it does need to be said and most importantly, worked through and left behind. It seemed that every time I did or said something that was meant (from a very gamey/insecure place I’ll admit) to make my sweetheart love or want me more it would actually disgust or offend him. In hindsight I can absolutely understand why those things didn’t go over well, if not only because of the insecurity and lack of groundedness I was revealing to him in needing to prove my worth – let alone the silly things I was saying and doing to try and impress him. The most interesting thing for me about that pattern was that a moment before I would say or do one of those silly things I would hear my higher self saying “um, michelle, you probably don’t want to say this” and I’d have a strange feeling in my tummy but I’d say it anyway and lo and behold we’d have a disagreement or at the very least my sweetheart would have reason to step back and wonder about the health of our connection. This of course being the exact opposite effect from what my 10 year old self was trying to achieve which was this: I wanted to be so incredibly desireable; so incredibly perfect and wonderful and fabulous and irreplaceable that he could not possibly ever consider leaving me. You see, on some unconscious level, I believed that if he would never leave then I would finally have the safety and security that I so craved since I was a little girl and my father abused and then abandoned me. That little girl was still believing on some level that it was something about her that wasn’t good enough and that she just needed to be prettier, thinner, smarter, funnier, wealthier etc. etc. and then no one would ever leave her. Well, surprise, surprise, people did leave her – leave me. And they were right to. I was confused. I was inauthentic. I was manipulative. I was desperate and needy and I placed the responsibility for my happiness on them rather than owning it myself.
For me this pattern could begin to change only when I realized that I was “good enough” already. I am perfect just as I am. I wasn’t responsible for what happened way back when; for how my father did or didn’t love me. That was his stuff, I couldn’t have done anything any differently and I couldn’t have influenced his behaviour and “make” him stay or not be harmful. It wasn’t about me, therefore, I didn’t need to keep carrying the story that I wasn’t good enough. Therefore, I could drop the games. I could centre and ground myself in me and see myself as a person of worth a deservedness and love and beauty regardless of who was or wasn’t in my life. Only at that point did I become a healthy and safe person to have a relationship with, before then ……not so good!
All this is to say that through the experience of coming face to face, time and again with the death cycle of relationship these pieces of growth work (my unfinished business), were revealed to me. As I opened myself to their message and stepped up to do my work my relationships got healthier and finally had the chance to deepen into something worthwhile and lasting. I couldn’t have had a healthy, loving and lasting relationship prior to this moment because I didn’t know what was alive in me that was preventing my connections from being deep, intimate and healthy. Now that I knew I could do my work. In having these realizations, some only very recently, my authentic self could finally settle down and relax. It could let go and trust me to handle relationships in a mature and respectful way (for me and my partner) and not in the old co-dependent way. That in itself my friends, is well worth the price of admission!
Have a great day out there and should the death cycle rear its head in your romantic partnership – don’t run the other way – embrace it, love it, revel in it, thank it, for it is the doorway to something beautiful.